From ‘Superman’ to ‘TEACH’

Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim’s new documentary, TEACH, premieres tonight on CBS.

“In the new film, there are no charter schools, no teachers’ union politics, no major education debates,” reports Education Week. Guggenheim focuses on four young teachers: Matt Johnson, a 4th grade teacher at McGlone Elementary School in Denver; Shelby Harris, a 7th- and 8th grade mathematics teacher at Kuna Middle School in Kuna, Idaho; Lindsay Chinn, a 9th grade algebra teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver; and Joel Laguna, the Advanced Placement World History teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles.

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  1. It’s Guggenheim’s apologia to the teaching profession some number of whom saw “Waiting for Superman” as teacher-bashing and did their best to make sure he knows it.

    Too bad. The greatest sin of “Waiting for Superman” was in its even-handed portrayal of teachers – some good, some bad, most of the rest caught somewhere in between by a system that’s as indifferent to teachers teaching as it is to learners learning.

  2. Florida resident says:
    • Yeah, do.

      “I don’t doubt that some teachers are awful. Some of my own teachers were awful; some of my colleagues, when I myself was a teacher, were awful; and to be perfectly frank, I never thought that I myself was much good as a teacher.”

      • Florida resident says:

        Dear Allen:
        Do you agree with the said statement by Derbyshire (his assessment of other people’s performance) ?
        Does it contradict your life experience ?
        Or your citation from Derb is sarcasm ?
        Your F.r.

        • I was pointing out that Derbyshire wants to have it both ways – Guggenheim is a mean, old teacher-basher and nothing but, and teachers aren’t quite so splendid as to be beyond noticing that some of them aren’t very good at their jobs.

          The former’s the reflexive defense of all criticisms of the public education system and the latter’s the truth that teachers have only recently had to begin to contend with.

          The former’s also been such a good means of deflecting criticism of the public education system for so long that those who utilize the tactic are loath to put it aside. It’s just so cheap, easy and effective that you’d be a fool not to try it out first.

          Mr. Derbyshire wants it both ways so to satisfy those who achieve apoplexy in the face of anything other then prayerful awe of teachers gives the reader a headline which neatly obviates the need to read further. For those insistent on more he provides plenty of fun fare as well. Finally though Mr. Derbyshire grudgingly admits that, yes, teachers are people and some of them, himself perhaps included, aren’t/weren’t very good teachers.

          In “Shoddy Filmmaking at Best” Derbyshire’s complaints revolve around Guggenheim’s editorial decisions and how they’ve been found wanting by Derbyshire.

          But trying to keep the focus on Guggenheim and his supposed shortcomings will distract few from the fact that the kids in Guggenheim’s film really do go to rotten district schools since that’s the daily reality of far too many American kids and American parents.

          • Florida resident says:

            Dear Allen:
            Thank you for your reply.
            Your F.r

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Trying to read Derbyshire fairly, I didn’t get the impression that he thought Guggenheim “is a mean, old teacher-basher and nothing but.” He seemed to think that Guggenheim was forced to blame teachers by a logic built on false premises:

            1. All kids can learn anything: “individual differences are denied. If we just Get The Schools Right, every child will go to college! They won’t have jobs, they’ll have careers! Every single child! Yes we can!”

            2. How good a school is depends mostly on the teachers. It does not depend on the students.

            3. Lots of students do very poorly in American schools.

            4. Thus, schools must be “failing our children.” However, “if we can just get rid of bad teachers, and hire in more good ones, the schools will no longer be “failing our children.” One of the talking heads in the film actually quantifies the promise: “If we could just replace the bottom-performing six percent of teachers with merely average teachers, our schools would attain the same level of success as Finland’s!”

            Derbyshire thinks that the most powerful determinant of whether a school is good or bad is the student body. Whether teachers are mediocre or great won’t make much difference. “… really, does anyone think that if the student bodies of the inner-city schools in this movie were to be swapped out en masse for the same number of Koreans, we would be talking about how the schools are “failing our children”? Untold thousands of East Asian students have in fact passed through our inner-city slum schools on their way—those who survived—to universities and professions.”

          • The false premises you enumerate aren’t Guggenheim’s or indeed those of reforms in general but the strawman premises ascribed by defenders of the public education system to the reform-minded.

            1. Uh, no. What a child’s capable of learning shouldn’t be subordinated to the convenience of administrators, laziness of teachers or the self-service of ed-school hucksters. But as long as parents have no more say over their child’s education then their zip code the aforementioned will be free to indulge their worst characteristics.

            2. Uh, no. How good a school is depends on who’s in charge and that factor’s ultimately a function of political power. Most parents have very little political power so they take what they get or they find somewhere else to live. Where parents do have a degree of control lousy teachers don’t linger.

            3. Yeah.

            4. Yeah. Schools are “failing our children” because there’s no good reason not to.

            As I’ve pointed out before, no one and no organization associated with public education suffers when kids get a lousy education. That’s how the system’s put together.

            The question then becomes “why shouldn’t the public education system fail our children”?

            If there’s no reason to do a good job why would anyone expect anything other then that a lousy job will be done?

          • Florida resident says:

            Dear Allen:
            In your response to #4 by Roger Sweeny you apparently did not notice the ironic tone of Derbyshire’s words:
            The selection of kids raises questions right away. In fact when someone on-screen spoke of the schools “failing our children,” I am sorry to say the old Lone Ranger joke came to mind: “What do you mean, ‘our’ . . .?”
            Your F.r.

          • Derbyshire was developing the point that it’s the fault of the kids. That if only we had a better class of kids in the classroom we’d have better results. But some care’s required using that excuse since some kids do just fine in schools in which many kids fail.

            Mincing around the point’s a necessity since what Derbyshire, and Mike in Texas and CarolineSF and all the rest of the defenders of the current model of public education are saying indirectly since they daren’t say it directly is that black, and Hispanic, kids are too stupid to learn.

            In the current political climate that would make Derbyshire a racist if only he weren’t defending the public education system. Since he is defending the public education system he gets by, as do all such defenders, without too close a look by the same folks who find racism in the “whiter then white” slogans of laundry detergents.

            But it’s a phony point nonetheless.

            Mandatory attendance means every kid gets educated to some minimal, acceptable level or else there’s no justification for the idiotic idea. Yet many kids aren’t being educated to any minimum level which requires, at long last, some sort of explanation.

            Of the possible explanations Derbyshire has chosen to side with the “blame the kids” crowd which inevitably requires a flurry of explanations, justifications and general obfuscation lest it be noticed that what the complaint really consists of is “we can’t be expected to do the job if it’s difficult”.

            But that’s exactly what the expectation is and I would offer that the relentless rise of reforms inimical to the district model of public education results precisely from a rejection of the endless excuses why the public education system is “failing the children”.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Certainly, Derbyshire is MOSTLY blaming the students. I feel fairly sure that he would say both “left-wing” (more money) and “right-wing” (more choice) reforms will MOSTLY fail for that reason. Unfortunately, the evidence of the last forty years is consistent with that pessimism.

            Oh, and I’m fairly sure Mike in Texas and CarolineSF would consider him a racist.

          • F. r., I noticed Derbyshire’s calling out the use of the word “our” but it’s a throw-away line; he doesn’t explore the use of the word beyond that.

            Too bad. The public education system’s built on a number of largely unexamined assumption among which is society’s claim on children. But they’re not “our” children and to the extent they are that’s the extent to which parental authority is reduced.

            Parental authority is accompanied by parental responsibility whereas the authority seized by the state isn’t accompanied by any responsibility. Notice how that plays out in the public education system.

            Societal authority mandates kids attend school but there’s no concomitant societal responsibility to ensure education occurs. Quite the opposite in fact. The people who demand the authority go to great effort to demonstrate why they don’t, and shouldn’t, have any responsibility.

            That ridiculous situation works for public education in part due to precedent and in part because public credulity means very few people question the assumption. The reform movement’s built on the questioning of that assumption and the realization that there’s no reason to believe any teacher, principal or administrator who isn’t answerable to parents is going to care about that kid to the satisfaction of their parent.

          • Roger, the extent to which Derbyshire’s blaming the kids is irrelevant. Some teachers are better then others and some schools are better then others. If we don’t boot the lousier teachers and shut down the lousier schools what’s that say about what’s important?

            What it says to me is “hey kid, you’ll take what you get and if you don’t like it or if it sucks, too bad. No one cares what you think and no one cares what happens to you”.

            Not exactly a message that’s conducive to faith that an education is the route to a better life.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I don’t doubt Derbyshire would like to boot the worst teachers. He just doesn’t think it will make much difference. Because (he thinks) how good an American public school is depends mostly on the students.

            Since I thought we were talking about what Derbyshire thinks, I thought that was relevant.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Florida resident, it sounds intriguing. My local library network (about 30 libraries) has only one copy, which suggest to me that it is either a bad book or politically incorrect, or both. Using Joanne’s “Search this website …” box indicates she hasn’t posted anything about it. Anyway, I’ll take a look.

            allen, reading something you disagree with certainly would be a waste of time. Worse, it might cause you to commit thoughtcrime.

        • I was debunking Derbyshire’s excuses for lousy performance.

          A dumb kid’s is going to do better with a good teacher then a bad teacher otherwise there’s no point to the profession. Any random schmuck wandering by should be able to do as well as someone with a teaching certificate if you accept the premise that the innate limitations of the kid trump the skill of the teacher.

          I don’t accept that premise but in defense of the public education status quo plenty of people do even if they stalwartly refuse to think the premise through. They manage to effortlessly encompass the mutually exclusive propositions that teachers are desperately important, the pivot about which the public education system revolves and teachers are practically irrelevant.

          So far, you’ve also managed the same trick.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I have? It’s really strange that you think that because I was talking about Derbyshire’s opinions, not my own. And I think I was pretty clear that I was talking about his opinions.

            Please do no accuse me of things I have not said.

          • Florida resident says:

            Dear Allen, dear Roger Sweeny:
            I think you should express your opinion about the contents of the book by Robert Weissberg “Bad Students, not Bad Schools”, , $13.84 + $3.99 S&H used.
            I would like to repeat: contents, Weissberg’s data, and not just the title.
            Your F.r.

          • Roger, okey-doke.

            Florida resident, I’m going to exercise my option to judge a book by its cover and decline your suggestion. I’ve expressed my opinion on the “blame the student” excuse for the lousy results that emanate from the public education system so reading a book dedicated to the idea just doesn’t seem like a good use of my time.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Florida resident, it sounds intriguing. My local library network (about 30 libraries) has only one copy, which suggest to me that it is either a bad book or politically incorrect, or both. Using Joanne’s “Search this website …” box indicates she hasn’t posted anything about it. Anyway, I’ll take a look.

            allen, reading something you disagree with certainly would be a waste of time. Worse, it might cause you to commit thoughtcrime.

  3. Florida resident says:

    Dear Roger Sweeny:
    I use the services of one of the largest library system in Florida, and it does not have the book
    “Bad Students, not Bad Schools” by Robert Weissberg. So, I do advise you to purchase it via Amazon.
    The book contains a lot of, as Engineer-Poet would say, “hate facts”, i.e. statements which are correct factually, but not politically.
    Your F.r.